World's first 'self-driving' ship crosses the Atlantic in Mayflower sea trials

  • Watch Charlotte Gay's report here.

A ship recreating the Mayflower's history journey has travelled 2,700 miles across the Atlantic ocean without a single member of crew on board.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) completed its 40 day trek from Plymouth in the UK to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada, on Sunday (5 June).

It was supposed to follow the original route the Pilgrims took 400 years ago and arrive in Massachusetts in the USA, but was diverted to Canada after technical problems at sea.

Project managers declared seeing the AI vessel dock "was such a relief" after the team had been "waiting for this moment for five or six years."

The unmanned ship arriving into the safety of the Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada. Credit: IBM/PROMARE

The team tracked the unmanned Mayflower minute by minute as it battled storms, occasionally travelled alongside pods of dolphins but it was mostly the vast emptiness of the Atlantic.

Andy Stanford-Clark, the IBM lead Technologist for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, says he was surprised by the "loneliness of the ocean".

"We've trained the AI system to identify boats of all shapes and size, buoys, floating shipping containers, icebergs even but we didn't see any of those."

"A close encounter for us was a ship that came within a hundred miles and we couldn't see those on the camera because of the curvature of the Earth."

The AI Captain onboard the vessel used six cameras and more than 30 sensors to interpret the conditions, adhere to maritime law but also making crucial split-second decisions, like rerouting itself around hazards or marine animals, all without human interaction or intervention.

However the project has not been without it's struggles as the pilot was originally set to launch during the Mayflower400 anniversary but suffered a mechanical problem just beyond the Isles of Scilly.

This second launch was still not without its challenges but Don Scott, the Lead Software Engineer, described the team of engineers in Plymouth as "pretty amazing" problem solvers as many had fix issues on the MAS remotely while it was thousands of miles away in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

Don admits at times it was "frustrating" when you know "I got to do is do this, but I can't do that because it's a thousand miles away."

"We actually can do a fair bit remotely with the computer systems. What we can't do is reconnect the wire, or fix a pump, things like that."

MAS was designed and built by marine research non-profit ProMare with IBM acting as lead technology and science partner.

All the data collected from the sensors and scientific instruments to monitor maritime cybersecurity, marine mammal activity, sea level mapping and ocean plastics will be fed back to researchers at the University of Plymouth.